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Event report: Women's 20km Walk

Could there ever have been a 20km Race Walk championship decided as early in the race as this morning’s Osaka ambulation?

The Russian training partners from Saransk, in Mordovia, Olga Kaniskina and Tatyana Shemyakina, strolled out of the Nagai Stadium a few minutes after 8am local time, in the same order that they would lead the field back nearly an hour and a half later. Had it not been for some overnight rain, the rest of the field might not have seen them for dust.

At the finish, Kaniskina took gold in 1hr 30min 09sec, from Shemyakina (1:30:42), with Spain’s Maria Vasco in the bronze position in 1:30:47. Despite a massive late effort, Norway’s Kjersti Platzer could not break into the medals, and finished rubber-legged from her exertions in fourth (1:31:24).

Kaniskina, the 22-year-old who had won the silver medal at last year’s European Championships, set off at a fearsome pace. In part, she was startled into action by an early mix up over the number of laps of the Nagai track the competitors were supposed to cover before going out on to the 2km road loop.

The racers were supposed to cover 1.7km in the stadium before going on to the roads. After just a little more than two laps, Kaniskina, Shemyakina, their team mates Tatyana Sibileva and Olimpiada Ivanova, accompanied by the host nation’s Mayumi Kawasaki, had already established a gap on the main pack. As they rounded the bend past the finish line, the youngster led them towards the gate.

Too late, the race marshals spotted the error, and while some other walkers also detoured, the Russian quartet probably went about 50m out of their way, though not enough to lose their positions.

Kaniskina notably picked up the pace, perhaps to the discomfort of the defending champion and world record-holder Ivanova, who rather than leave the stadium, made for the mixed zone, the 37-year-old’s first race of the year finished before she had gone 2km.

The event was already missing the 2007 world leader, Rita Turova, of Belarussia, the winner of races at San Giovanni, Krakow, La Coruna and the European Cup, but withdrawn from these championships by her federation’s officials on medical grounds.

Kaniskina clicked through 2km in 9min 1sec, 3km in 13:31, leaving the rest trailing: Sibileva, in third, was 10sec down even after just 3km, Kawasaki – with her own little fan club carrying banners in support – and Vasco some 24sec down on the leader.

Shemyakina picked up a warning on the fourth kilometre, which may have impeded her chase, though she would still have had to go some just to keep pace with Kaniskina, who covered the 1,000m to the 5km mark in just 4:19. Sibileva could not even sustain steady 4:30-paced kilometres, and by the quarter-distance mark, she was 39sec off the lead. Vasco and China’s Song Hongjuan were a further 22sec back, just ahead of Australia’s Jane Saville. Kawasaki, despite the local support, was already drifting back, and was now 14th.

And so the dye was cast. Kaniskina continued to march towards her first international title, her style clean as far as the judges were concerned.

This was not the case with Saville, who picked up her second warning card before she got to the 10km mark. The woman so famously disqualified within touching distance of Olympic gold in her home city of Sydney in 2000, would be pulled from the race by 12km.

The rosy-cheeked Kaniskina, though, began to look a little flushed as she approached halfway, and after consistently sub-3:30 kilometres, she slowed markedly just before halfway (reached in 44:33). She was still 44sec clear of Shemyakina, with Vasco now up to third (45:53), and the Norwegian Kjersti Platzer on a charge, moving into fourth place from eighth at 5km.

With the mercury rising through the morning to 30 degrees, the sun out and the humidity around 65 per cent, as Kaniskina grimaced, we wondered whether she would fall prey to the conditions and her ambitious schedule.

As she passed the water stations en route, it was clear this was a two-bottle day: one bottle to be greedily drunk while she barely broke stride, the other tipped over her head in a makeshift shower to keep her body temperature down.

As Sibileva faded (she would eventually finish ninth), by 15km the top five positions were set as they would be at the finish. Although Vasco was closing rapidly on Shemyakina, the Spaniard could get no closer than the five seconds that separated her from silver by the finish – her World bronze was not bad reward for a woman who nearly gave up the sport last year.

Kaniskina slowed markedly in the last 5km – her final kilometre was only just inside five minutes - but her rivals were suffering just as much in the latter stages and the woman from the Volga duly claimed the world crown.

Osaka 2007 News Team/sd